We spoke to Jen Nedbalsky, Associate Director & Audience Engagement of Human Rights Watch Film Festival, one of the worlds leading independent film festivals focusing on feature films documenting human rights across the globe through artistic merit.
Tell us about your festival
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (now in its 29th year) has a mission to celebrate the work of courageous filmmakers and activists who are bringing human rights stories to the public, and empower audiences to join in the work of the human rights movement. Our screenings create a forum for conversation, debate and learning around critical issues affecting communities worldwide. The film festival challenges each individual to empathize with the subjects of a film, feel a more personal connection to the stories they see, and then gives the audience tools to take the next step in making a change. The festival travels to over 20 cities worldwide, including Amsterdam, New York, Beirut, London, Nairobi, Toronto and many more.
What made you start your film festival?
Back when our film festival began, documentary films were simply not being seen by the general public in the way that they are now. Our film festival is run out of the NGO Human Rights Watch, who works in over 90 countries documenting and exposing human rights abuse. Through our festival we raise awareness and generate public dialogue around many of the issues our colleagues are seeing in communities worldwide.
What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?
This year we are so proud that more than half of our films have been directed by women! There are some incredibly moving, challenging and inspiring films this year – on subjects that have been on my mind and in the headlines lately. From race and policing, to women’s rights and celebration of activism lead by women, to the importance of democratic elections to the daily lives of Syrian refugees and migrant workers in Qatar.
What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?
I have learned so much at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, but I think the thing that really sticks with me is the honor I have to stand on stage with and to share the stories of courageous activists, filmmakers and human rights researchers who are taking great personal risks to protect the rights of their community. It is truly humbling to be able to provide a platform for audiences to learn more about a person like Silas Siakor (featured in the Closing Night film SILAS) – a man who has risked his life and made great sacrifices to stand up to government forces and corporations to demand accountability and protect the forests of Liberia. Through his story and so many others at the film festival I am inspired to do more in my own community every day.
How does your selection process work?
Our film team screens more than 500 films a year in consideration for our festival. Once we find a film that we all feel strongly about -it then goes to our Human Rights Watch researchers to vet for factual accuracy. If the film is on women’s rights in Afghanistan – it is sent along to our Afghan researcher who may have been working in the region at the time was created, or is familiar with the topic and characters in the film. If the film is found to be factually accurate, and our programmers find the film to be well-made, at that time it would be invited to play at our festival.
What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?
As a very small staff of only 5 full time staff that organizes the film festival annually in over 20 cities worldwide – we do not send out rejection letters. We wish we had time to interact with each and every filmmaker whose work we consider.
Describe your festival in five words or three emojis
😳☺🙌 plus ✌
What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?
I love attending our San Diego festival, which is a smaller community oriented festival at one venue with only 6 films. The same audience members attend almost every single screening – which creates great community dialogue and allows for a lot of inspired + energized people to leave the room by the end of the festival.
I am a New Yorker, so I also love attending the talks at the Tribeca Film Festival and DocNYC when I can 🙂
What do you wish more filmmakers did, and didn’t do?
My role as the Associate Director of Audienc Engagement focuses on how we can bring new audiences in to the films and to inspire communities to see the films as an organizing tool – and a way to use the festival and films to push for change. I LOVE it when a filmmaker comes to us and says that not only is the film finished, but they have also been thinking about their outreach and impact campaign through the process of making their film. We LOVE to see films that we show go on and make a difference + generate public dialogue (It’s what we live for!) We support films far after we’ve shown them and help filmmakers to use their films for advocacy when we can. I wish more filmmakers thought more about how to help their film really make an impact from the beginning of production.
What questions do you get asked the most by filmmakers?
Hm, that’s a tough one. We get asked if we show short films (we don’t) if we fund films in production (we don’t) – but for filmmakers that have shown with us we are often asked to spread the word about screenings or impact campaigns long after we’ve shown the film in our festival – and we are always happy to help in that department 😊
What’s your favourite film?
I honestly love and feel so moved by all of the films that we are showing this year, but I think that (as a mum myself) the films NAILA AND THE UPRISING, MUHI and WOMEN OF THE VENEZUELAN CHAOS really touched me. In NAILA AND THE UPRISING we hear about the untold story of women activists and mothers who lead the way in standing up for their communities in Palestine, while in WOMEN OF THE VENEZUELAN CHAOS we see how mothers are struggling day to day to provide for their children in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The images and stories I heard there are really hard to forget. In MUHI we learn about a little boy dealing with serious health issues whose resilience is inspiring – despite finding himself and his family caught between Israel and Palestine as they seek to get him care. These are all heart-wrenching stories, but there are so many hopeful moments to be found in the strength and resilience of each individual. In the face of pain, hardship and threats to safety – people around the world ARE standing up and demanding change (+ are in some cases winning!) – so that in itself needs to be celebrated. We each play a part in this.
And drink of choice whilst the festival is underway…?
I will be drinking a LOT of tea throughout the week to keep up with all of the energy around us at the festival. Oh, and a little white wine too. 😉